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The Wandering Soul of the Writer in Limbo

When I was a young teenager living in Lusaka, my best friend Jenny was part of a large and devout Catholic family. This was long before my conversion to Catholicism, and her home with its holy pictures, luminous crucifixes and nightly prayers seemed exotic and a little unsettling to my Presbyterian mind.

One Halloween night, our classmate who lived near the city cemetery invited the class to a party. We accepted a dare to walk to the cemetery. Our hosts had set up a prank. They were waiting for us, hiding behind the tombstones draped in sheets and holding torches. As we made our way along the paths, these glowing white figures emerged and hovered over the graves. I have never been so terrified in my life! I was staying with Jenny that night, and when we returned to her house still pale and shaking from our ordeal, her mother was hardly reassuring. “Oh yes,” she said, “that would be souls in limbo. They sometimes wander the earth looking for rest.” I was aghast, and the trauma of that experience lingered for a very long time.

Back in Lusaka, I’m coming to the end of a month’s holiday travelling this beautiful country, catching up with my sister and her family, meeting new people and a very few I remember from living here (I left when I was nineteen). These encounters have been enriching and inspiring in many ways, but I realise I no longer belong here. I’m on the outside looking in. Yet having lived in England for the past thirty four years, I don’t belong there either. I don’t share the anecdotes and attachments of those who grew up there, and I lack the patriotism and sense of identity of those who were born there. To grow old in the same country where one was born is to inhabit a different world from those of us whose nomadic existence reflects the growing number of postcolonial diasporas that are created when empires disintegrate, violence erupts, poverty deepens, ambitions flare, and people leave their countries of origin to seek a better life, or simply in the hopes of surviving.

My Scottish parents were economic migrants. As youngsters with little education (they both left school at fourteen) and few prospects, they left the austerity of life in the towns around post war Glasgow (Paisley and Barrhead), to settle in then Northern Rhodesia. I’ve never lived in Scotland but my childhood was shaped by Scottish literature, music, history, and traditions. This leaves me wondering who I am and where I belong, and that leads me to reflect on those wandering souls in limbo.

When my children were growing up, I wanted a house they could call “home”, a home they could always return to, a home with room for their friends, their romantic others, and eventually their children. It was a wrenching experience to leave the places I’d decided to call “home” during those maternal years – our rambling old house in Harare, our terraced house in Bristol which over the years we’d enlarged and inhabited so that it felt as if our lives had seeped into the brickwork and the house had become an extension of our family. But now the children have grown up, the grandchildren live in different parts of the country (though thank goodness still in the same country), and there is no place that feels like home.

Recently, I’ve come to see this sense of not belonging as the greatest gift that my parents gave me – inadvertently perhaps – for my writing flows from my wandering soul, and it is the one enduring joy in my life. From as soon as I learned to read and write, I’ve had a boundless capacity for solitary immersion in imagined worlds.

I now know that to have a calling to write is to live in limbo, to accept that the cost of the calling is to wander restlessly between heaven and hell, in a fluid landscape that shifts and morphs, for the imagination is quicksand, mist, and marsh. If offers no stable ground on which to build a home. The imagination is not a home but an endless vista that opens into infinity and seduces one along unexplored paths and unrealisable possibilities.

This is as true of academic writing as it is of poetry and fiction, for every intellectual endeavour requires us to shed our preconceptions and our assumptions, and to venture unclothed into a world of naked encounters and raw beginnings. One meets strangers along the way, usually clothed in their identities and the social accoutrements that defend them against such exposure. But expose them one must, secretly probing, writhing through conversations in which one seeks to discern the unspoken realities beneath the gloss of convention. The true companions on this journey are other writers, those who also know they are naked and who must risk failure and contradiction if they are to write. That’s why reading is inseparable from writing. Of course, not all writers are worth reading, but the ones who expose themselves always are, whatever the manner of exposure – fiction, poetry, music, diaries, letters, autobiographies. Readers and writers are the only enduringly faithful and true friends to one another, and they must keep changing places in order to be true to themselves.

This means we can only write when we accept that we are always strangers – strangers not just to others but perhaps even more importantly, to ourselves (to borrow from Julia Kristeva). The part of us that longs for connection and intimacy must co-exist with the part of us that must always stand a little aside, sometimes ruthless in our observations, never taking anything at face value, always writing what cannot be said. Olga Tokarczuk expresses this so well in her novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, when she observes of a character (describing herself perhaps, for our characters always bear some trace of autobiography):

In a way, people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous. At once a suspicion of fakery springs to mind – that such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality – its inexpressibility. (pp. 51-52)

So here in the country of my birth, my wandering soul experiences recognition but not identification, nostalgia with no hope of return. My imagination harvests it all for new stories, new fictions, new pathways to explore. I remember Aristotle’s insight in The Poetics that “poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history: in fact poetry speaks more of universals, whereas history of particulars.” The challenge is twofold: to remain informed by the particulars, while always searching for the universal within them. The first calls for attentive and sympathetic listening (only an open heart can open the other to reveal the truth of their lives, whether in face to face encounters or in encounters that come through reading, watching, hearing, all the ways in which culture opens us to otherness), and the second calls for the imagination to be set free to explore, in order to glean the universal from within the other. Only creative endeavours that succeed in this endure the test of time. Through the stories of particular others, told in literature, poetry, music, and art, the greatest artists are those who know how to open the particular to the universal. Shakespeare. Mozart. Dante. Caravaggio. The authors of all the world’s great scriptures and philosophies. These are the works of art or – to borrow from John Updike – the angels that redeem the world:

They are above us all the time,

the good gentlemen, Mozart and Bach,

Scarlatti and Handel and Brahms,

lavishing measures of light down upon us,

telling us, over and over, there is a realm

above this plane of silent compromise.

They are around us everywhere, the old seers,

Matisse and Vermeer, Cézanne and Piero,

greeting us echoing in subway tunnels,

springing like winter flowers from postcards,

Scotch-taped to white kitchen walls,

waiting larger than life in shadowy galleries

to whisper that edges of color

lie all about us as innocent as grass.

They are behind us, beneath us,

the abysmal books, Shakespeare and Tolstoy,

the Bible and Proust and Cervantes,

burning in memory like leaky furnace doors,

minepits of honesty from which we escaped

with dilated suspicions. Love us, dead thrones:

sing us to sleep, awaken our eyes,

comfort with terror our mortal afternoons.

But angelic encounters are lonely. Updike’s last line evokes the last stanza of Edwin Muir’s poem, The Angel and the Girl Are Met:

But through the endless afternoon

These neither speak nor movement make.

But stare into their deepening trance

As if their grace would never break.

Adam Pomeroy, Annunciation

We are all virgins when the angel arrives, wondering “How can this be?” As Phillip Martin writes in his blog, “Before there is the birth there is the annunciation. Before the gift comes the asking.” This is the writer’s “trance”, the dread of the gift that “comfort(s) with terror our mortal afternoons.” It is the uninvited characters and ideas that intrude into consciousness and disrupt our sleep, begging to find a place within us in which to grow and become, haunting us until we give in and give ourselves over to them.

No relationship, however intimate, can cross that no-man’s land between self and other, the land which is the freehold of the imagination where dark angels come visiting. Maybe that’s why writers always seem a little odd, a little out of it. This nomadic existence has led me into the Catholic Church and into many relationships and places seeking one that feels like a homecoming. Now I relinquish that because I realise that for a writer, the only true home is the imagination, and that is not a place but a space of infinite possible loves and dreams of belonging from a place of exile.

Edna O’Brien’s novel, The Little Red Chairs, is a harrowing fictional account of the trauma of being a refugee, and a reminder that anyone can find themselves in that predicament if their settled lives swerve into the chaos of violence and fear. It takes its title from the 11,541 red chairs laid out in rows in Sarajevo on April 6, 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. Each chair represented a Sarajevan killed during the siege. The last few lines of that book are powerfully moving. A group of refugees gathers in a hall for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They begin to sing of home in their many different languages, and as their voices swell into a vast ocean of sound, the book ends. The audiobook is beautifully read by Juliet Stevenson. Here’s an extract from near the end, which perhaps calls us to recognise that we are all in some sense homeless, with a yearning for an elusive homecoming that never arrives.

For the finale, the word “home” was to be sung and chanted in the 35 different languages of the performers. At first, even after many rehearsals, it was awry. The voices grated, the very harmony they had aspired to was missing. And then one woman stepped forward and took command, her voice rich and supple, a wine dark sea filled with the drowned memories of love and belonging. Soon others followed, until at last 35 tongues as one joined in a soaring transcendent Magnificat. Home, home, home. It rose and swelled. It reached to the rafters and through the walls, out into the lit street, to countryside with its marsh and meadow, by graveyard and sheepfold, through dumbstruck forests to the lonely savannas and reeking slums, overseas and beyond, to endless, longed for destinations. You would not believe how many words there are for home, and what savage music there can be wrung from it.

Listen to Juliet Stevenson reading this passage here.

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